Mr. Robert McNamara, the 1961-68 Pentagon chief who died on Monday, will be largely remembered as a tragic figure. He led the United States into a military quagmire in Vietnam that not only took the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and an estimated 4 million Vietnamese but also weakened America’s world standing. But his admission that the Vietnam War was a mistake and his call for abolition of nuclear weapons in his later years somewhat rehabilitated his image in the minds of many people.

One month after Mr. McNamara became the first president of Ford Motor Co. from outside the Ford family, President John F. Kennedy picked him as defense secretary. But his escalation of the Vietnam War eventually led to a U.S. defeat. He also formulated the strategic doctrine of “mutually assured destruction,” in which a fear of annihilation would prevent nuclear attacks by the U.S. or the Soviet Union on each other — a doctrine that led to massive buildup of nuclear arsenals.

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